Turkiye’s Baykar signs largest drone deal with Saudi Arabia

Sale of advanced Akinci reflects major thaw between regional powers

Turkiye’s leading exporter of armed drones, Baykar Technology, has signed two contracts with Saudi Arabia’s Defense Ministry for the company’s advanced Akinci drone in a deal expected to top $1 billion.

Baykar CEO Haluk Bayraktar called the deal the “largest defense and aviation export contract in the history of Republic of Turkiye,” without disclosing the size of the sale.

The deal was signed late Monday along with several other agreements ranging from energy to investments with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman present in Jeddah. Erdogan is touring the Gulf region,and his stops include Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Akinci, which means “raider” in Turkish, will be used in the Saudi Arabian air and naval forces, Baykar said, adding that the deal includes knowledge transfer and joint production.

“This cooperation aims not only to strengthen the bond between our countries, but also contribute to regional and global peace,” Bayraktar said in a press release.

Akinci entered the Turkish armed forces in 2021, and Saudi Arabia is the seventh export contract that the company has signed. These include sales to other key friendly countries such as Pakistan and the fellow Turkic nations of Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.

The company’s mainstay lighter armed drone Bayraktar TB2 has a proven combat record in Ukraine against Russia and in Azerbaijan against Armenian forces. Baykar has signed export contracts for TB2 with 30 countries including Qatar and NATO members Poland and Romania.

Powered by two Ukraine-made engines, Akinci can carry a payload 10 times heavier than that of the TB2, reaching 1.5 tonnes. The drone is more than eight times heavier, at 6 tonnes. The company says the drone, with a 20-meter wingspan, can fly at much higher altitudes than the TB2, up to 40,000 feet.

The sale of such advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia signals that the two countries have moved on from their bitter relations, which hit bottom with the killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Turkiye’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE deteriorated after the 2011 Arab Spring, when Erdogan openly endorsed groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Middle East and North Africa — an anathema to most of the Gulf monarchies.

Since 2021, Turkiye has adopted a policy of rapprochement with regional heavyweights and buried the hatchet with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, hosting their leaders, and is now preparing to host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Saudi Arabia already has the Chinese armed drone Wing Loong II in its fleet.

During an interview last year with Nikkei Asia, Bayraktar claimed that the twin-engine Akinci is superior to the single-engine U.S. armed drone MQ-9 Reaper with more advanced artificial intelligence features. He said that whenever Baykar drones are sold to a country with Chinese drones, the Chinese models are “retired,” due to the difference in quality and performance.

The UAE is also in talks with Baykar for acquisition of Bayraktar TB2-type drones.

Though Baykar does not disclose price ranges for its products, defense analysts estimate a TB2 drone to cost $5 million to $6 million. During the interview last year, Bayraktar said Akinci is far more complex, requiring 10 times more man-hours to produce than the TB2, and costs around four times more.

Turkiye hopes that Erdogan’s Gulf visit can lead to lucrative business deals. The central bank’s foreign exchange reserves are drained, and the economy is in need of a rebuild.

Since relations with Saudi Arabia were repaired last year, Turkiye saw an export boom toward the country. Turkiye’s construction companies were welcomed back to the kingdom, ending a de facto economic embargo.


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